There are men who are walk to the gallows with more spring in their steps than Shane Watson leaving the crease once he’s been dismissed. It’s a depressing waddle, with many head turns, a puzzled look at the screen, and the sad face of a child who doesn’t really understand why he has to go home. For a good part of his Test career, these walks have taken longer than his innings.
Watson smiles a fair bit off the field. It’s the sunny, full smile of someone who is pretty happy with life. He can even pull it off after the worst day of cricket, when he has been sent to speak to the press because no one else wants too.
This is a man who earlier in his life seemed to only speak in front of a press pack. Like a young wannabe starlet who hounds the paparazzi, Watson was always there and always available. All the while being too honest for his own good. The Australian media, which can, when raw meat is thrown at them, be merciless, honestly like Watson as much as he seems to like them.
But not everyone likes Watson.
His team’s own press officer leaked the story about him being afraid of ghosts during the 2005 tour. Another Cricket Australia employee once remarked that the most dangerous place in the Australia dressing room was between Watson and a mirror. Cricket Australia’s general manager of team performance, Pat Howard, suggested he wasn’t always a team player. And according to his former coach, his current captain thinks he is a cancer.
During the last Australian summer Watson made a public play for the opening position and suggested he may never bowl again. Shortly after that, he was suspended, along with three others, for not doing everything in his power to prepare Australia to win a Test match. He then left the tour for the birth of his child, which was also right after he had been suspended. He resigned from the vice-captaincy. He then played in the IPL, and bowled.
This, and many other reasons are why the Australian public, and some of the cricket community, find it hard to warm to him.
When Watson is in charge of a cricket match, it’s a sight worth seeing. Partly it’s the way he hits a cricket ball. He is the perfect combination of timing and power. Not graceful, nor a slog, it’s a cracking bass riff on a rock anthem. It makes the sort of noises that Adam West’s Batman had to use sound effects for.
When Watson takes control of a tournament, it is his. The first time that Watson really showed everyone this was in the 2007 World Cup. Hidden in the middle order, and barely needed, Watson hit 145 runs, with a strike rate of 170.58, and was out once. In any other team they would have made billboards in his honour.
When the first IPL came around, Watson was bought by Rajasthan for US$125,000. He went on to be the player of the tournament with 472 runs at a strike rate of 151.76, to go with 17 wickets at 22.52. Against poor IPL attacks, Watson was a circus strongman taking on local farmers and throwing them back into the crowd. Rajasthan won.
By the time the World Twenty20 arrived in Sri Lanka last year, Watson had proven he was good enough. That he could inflict serious damage. But no one expected what followed, which was four innings in which he beat teams on his own. Dav Whatmore suggested that poisoning Watson might be a good idea. And, in those first four games, it’s doubtful if even that would have worked. It was as if Watson was picking which orbiting satellites he could hit out of the air. Watson was Australia in that tournament, as they unexpectedly made the semi-finals.
There is something perpetually not right about Watson’s back pad. Virtually every ball he rearranges it, either before the bowler comes in, or even as the bowler comes in. Like most batting ticks, it is impossible to ignore it once you’ve seen it. It is the sort of things old veterans just pick up as their careers go. For someone as brutal as he can be, it is the first sign of weakness. Not that it means he is weak. Just that he isn’t the big hitting heavyweight he would love to be.
Watson’s first game of Shield cricket was for Tasmania. David Saker also played. Watson had left Queensland for Tasmania when they offered him a place. Queensland had Martin Love, Stuart Law, Jimmy Maher and Andrew Symonds in their side, they couldn’t promise Watson a place. Watson wouldn’t wait.
It meant that even before his first game, Watson was under pressure to show how good he was. On top of leaving his home state, he also had the pressure of being something that Australia had been craving since Keith Miller retired. A proper Test-match allrounder. Not a bits-and-pieces player, or a batsman who could bowl, or bowler who could bat. But a player who could bat top order and bowl serious overs. Watson could bowl really quick, and could bat at three. He was almost too good to be true.
It turned out that it wasn’t completely true. But he is still the most complete allrounder, on talent alone, that Australia have had in a very long time. At his very best Watson gives Australia a proper fifth bowling option, and that was something the great sides of the 1990s and 2000s couldn’t rely on.
It’s amazing to think this player, who could help transform the Australia line-up and win games with bat or ball, is only 46 Tests into a career that he was so desperate to start 13 years ago he left home as a teenager.
It feels like no one has ever proved to Watson that he bowls medium pace. Every ball that a batsman smashes, he looks visibly distressed that the batsman could do that to him. For most of an over, he has his hands on his head, bemoaning how close he came to taking a wicket. There is very rarely a delivery that comes from Watson’s hand that he doesn’t believe should give him a wicket.
The weird thing about Watson’s bowling is although he still seems to think he is quite quick, he is five times the bowler he was when he was actually quick. When he was quick, he was really rubbish. His bowling was gun barrel straight, he had this windmill action that could generate pace and little else. In his early international matches, he got the sort of treatment he gave to England debutant Simon Kerrigan from South Africa batsmen who were laughing at him.
An infographic of Shane Watson’s injuries would take weeks to prepare. And you’d find yourself hovering over it for days, not really believing that one man can have this many faults. It seems he has quit, threatened to quit, or had it suggested he should quit bowling in almost every season of his life.
It was the injuries and constant need for attention that turned people off him. Large parts of the public saw him as a big head with a soft body. He teased them with talent, but showed little of it on the field. The seven years between making his ODI debut and being a consistent player in the Test team were full of hate and mocking from the crowd.
When Watson bowls you feel like you can hear his joints straining under the pressure. Some deliveries it is as if he won’t make it to the crease in one piece. When he does, and he’s finished showing how shocked or disappointed he was with the result, he trudges back to his mark.
When Watson was 28, he sought the help of batting guru Greg Chappell. He wanted to become Andrew Flintoff. A No. 6 batsman who would come out and make a mark on the opposition and then back it up with the ball.
Instead he became an opening batsman after saying he was up for the job as the media beat Phillip Hughes more than Flintoff ever did.
But regardless of what was often said, Watson wasn’t an all-smashing opening batsman who burned down the attacks of the world. In fact, he was a reliable opening batsman who could tie Australia down and often gave away starts when he was in total control. It was a consistency that Australia needed, and he and Simon Katich out-batted their far-more respected counterparts down the order. Watson lost his opening partner, as Katich was dropped and gagged. Then Watson lost his form.
DRS being used in almost every series didn’t help him. In a new team, he became vice-captain and a leader, but his batting was stuck in neutral. No longer was his front leg a statement of intent, now it was a hittable target. He failed as an opener in 2011, he failed in every other position after that as well. Teams now hit is front pad without much trouble. And failing to go on and make hundreds was now the sort of problem he wished he still had.
Shane Watson run-outs and DRS use can sometimes seem so unfunny because you’ve seen them so many times. They’re now basically internet memes. Cricket’s keyboard cat or subtitled Hitler videos. You see them, it takes a second to work out you haven’t seen that exact one before, you smile, and then you move on.
Shane Watson has not been dropped since the 2009 Ashes. He’s been injured and suspended, but not dropped. He worked his batting average up over 42, before dropping it under 35. But he hasn’t been dropped because unlike when he had to move states for a chance, there are no batsmen of his talent sitting around in Australia. He is something special and, flawed or not, they have chosen to keep him. Even if it doesn’t always look like the best option.
It is also why he gets more flack than other players. It’s why he has frustrated fans for over a decade. And today, as brilliant and brutal as he was, it was hard not to think back to his entire career and wonder how on earth this was only his third Test-match hundred and one of very few game-changing innings he has played in Tests.
Watson has spent far too much of his talent tossing around lesser bowlers in lower forms of cricket. In his 176 at The Oval he used those skills to devour Kerrigan and Chris Woakes. But to think of it purely as an innings of that kind would be wrong. Early on he had to survive James Anderson and Stuart Broad moving the ball and strangling Australia. He then had to get up off the dirt after almost losing his head to Broad. And then, perhaps scariest of all, he had to slay the 100 dragon that has mocked him even on his best days. He did it all. Later on, he even killed his DRS troll. It was a Shane Watson day, and the world had to sit back and wait for him to finish.
When Watson left the crease today, he did it quickly. It wasn’t the walk of a haunted man; it was the walk of someone who had done something. He moved so quickly he almost forgot to raise his bat. Australia have had the potential Watson, the injured Watson, the one-day monster Watson, the moping Watson and the confused Watson.
Now they need Watson the destroyer. One hundred and seventy six was a good start. They, and he, deserve more.